Friday, June 25, 2010

Open Letter Concerning the CCSD's FY 2011 Budget

Below is the text of an “open letter” that I had hoped to present to the Clarke County Board of Education before it adopted the CCSD’s FY 2011 budget. Unfortunately, the gremlins struck my computer yesterday morning and I was unable to finish, print, or email the letter before the special called meeting convened at noon. So, I have dispatched the completed letter today.

Be that as it may, however, the actually timing of my letter is completely irrelevant. To the best of my knowledge, not a dime was changed in the FY 2011 budget on the basis of any public comments received at the CCSD’s three TBOR hearings (besides which, I have been making these same observations and arguments in person, in print, and in the blogosphere for years – to no avail whatsoever).

24 June 2010

Clarke County Board of Education
240 Mitchell Bridge Road
Athens, Georgia 30606

Members of the Board

First, let me acknowledge some of the good things that I see happening in the Clarke County School District; I fully support the creation of the Athens Community Career Academy, the move toward neighborhood schools in elementary school attendance zones, the closing of SOAR Academy and the transference of those responsibilities to Ombudsman Educational Services, and the implementation of a Uniform Dress Policy at some of the District’s schools. Also, I will note that the District has done a better job compared to years past insofar as making its budget documents available for public review. On the other hand, though, I am not nearly so complimentary regarding the District’s budget itself.

My first concern is something of a philosophical one. Back in 2006, the public was assured that the District would adopt zero-based budgeting due to the requirements of the so-called “65% solution” dictated by state law. In the years since, I have seen no evidence of this. The District’s presentations at public hearings on its budget invariably run thus: using the previous fiscal year’s expenditures as a “Starting Baseline Budget,” the District introduces “Must-Do Additions,” “Recommended Deductions,” and “Recommended Additions,” so as to arrive at a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Such practice is, obviously, baseline budgeting by definition as opposed to anything even remotely resembling zero-based budgeting. Be that philosophical concern as it may, though, my others are much more concrete.

The most recent expenditure figures available from the Georgia Department of Education are for FY 2009 (the per pupil expenditure figures specific to Clarke County have been available since December of last year; the District’s web site still lists the figure for FY 2008; I thought that the issue of publishing outdated figures had been rectified a couple of years ago, but apparently not). According to those figures, the State of Georgia average for per pupil expenditures in FY 2009 was $8907.82, a decrease of 0.64% from the FY 2008 figure of $8965.24. Conversely, the corresponding FY 2009 figure for the Clarke County School District was $11,248.22, a 0.61% increase over the FY 2008 figure of $11,180.05. Thus, even as the current economic downturn took hold, as evidenced by reductions in both state and local tax receipts, the District’s average per pupil expenditure rose from 24.70% above the state average in FY 2008 to 26.27% above the state average in FY 2009. Though the percentage differences involved are admittedly small, the fact that the District’s spending increased is noteworthy, especially given the incessant cries of many concerning the District’s supposed paucity.

A look inside the FY 2009 figures reveals the following per pupil expenditures for the Clarke County School District in the seven categories tracked by the Georgia Department of Education:

Pupil Services $288.28 (minus 3.29% of the state average of $297.77)

School Administration $634.96 (plus 14.35% of the state average of $555.27)

General Administration $494.86 (plus 14.43% of the state average of $432.45)

Instruction $7460.97 (plus 24.03% of the state average of $6015.38)

Maintenance & Operations $952.93 (plus 32.77% of the state average of $717.72)

Staff Services $669.22 (plus 45.68% of the state average of $459.38)

Transportation $747.01 (plus 73.78% of the state average of $429.85)

This high level of per pupil expenditures places the District in the 94th percentile among school systems statewide, eleventh highest of the 184 school systems reporting, a ranking that has not varied appreciably over the last several years. Of the ten school districts that had higher per pupil spending in FY 2009, nine are much smaller districts that have to spread fixed capital and administrative costs over far fewer students, thereby driving their per pupil expenditures up due to a lack of economies of scale. The only school district with more students that outspends Clarke County on a per pupil basis is that of the City of Atlanta.

By way of comparison, the FY 2009 per pupil expenditures of the school districts that surround Clarke County were:

Barrow County $7987.92

Commerce City $8582.85

Jackson County $9689.45

Jefferson City $7592.71

Madison County $9037.65

Oconee County $8577.80

Oglethorpe County $8369.55

Note that by every measure available (graduation rates, test scores, AYP rankings, etcetera), these other school districts perform as well – and actually as a matter of course substantially better – than the Clarke County School District, and yet do so at considerably less cost.

The rationales consistently given for this high level of spending, the poverty rate among the District’s students and the relative number of special needs students, amount to nothing more that useful canards. According to figures from the Georgia Department of Education, during the 2008-2009 school year, the District’s student population included:

Students with Disabilities 13%

English Language Learners 12%

Economically Disadvantaged 74%

Again by way of comparison, the corresponding figures for those neighboring school districts listed above for Students with Disabilities ranged from 9% to 14% (with an average of 11.57%), English Language Learners ranged from 2% to 8% (with an average of (3.71%), and Economically Disadvantaged ranged from 29% to 53% (with an average of 43.43%). Thus, the District’s percentage of Students with Disabilities is comparable to that of the surrounding districts, while its percentage of English Language Learners is somewhat higher than that of the surrounding districts. Only its percentage of Economically Disadvantaged students is markedly higher than that of the surrounding districts.

Notably, though, when measured against other districts with higher percentages of English Language Learners, such as the Gainesville City district at 30%, and Economically Disadvantaged students, such as Warren County at 88%, those other districts consistently achieve superior results with much lower per pupil expenditures.

I am not without sympathy regarding your plight as you plan the District’s finances. I realize that the District’s budgeting is a complex matter, involving federal, state, and local funds, each of which imposes its own requirements and parameters. That said, however, I had hoped that the budget reduction dictated by sagging tax revenues would have prompted a fundamental revision of the way the District conducts its finances. Unfortunately, this does not appear to have been the case, as the FY 2011 budget makes disproportionate, and I daresay comparatively easy, cuts to frontline classroom personnel, some 80% of whom had been “rehired” by the time the Board passed its budget anyway, as opposed to rethinking the high expenditure paradigm that dominates locally. The reduction in force proved to be a chimera only.

Even if one accepts the premise that a higher level of spending is required to educate poor students, a premise espoused by several sitting members of the Board in their various campaigns for office, that premise has been empirically, and repeatedly, disproved by the District’s own experience. Simply put, the higher expenditure per pupil model has been tried for any number of years now – with no appreciable positive affect.

The truth of the matter is that the District has been overspending for years and the upcoming fiscal year’s budget presented the opportunity to address that overspending in a meaningful manner. To my mind, that has not happened.


James Garland

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